There is something about Akbar the Mughal.
Akbar won wars. Akbar signed treaties. Akbar loved paintings. Akbar loved hunting. Akbar conquered. Akbar consolidated. Akbar persecuted. Akbar brought peace. Akbar thought. Akbar debated. Akbar created religions.
Akbar was, in other words, a jack of all trades. One of the Jesuit priests who came to Akbar’s court in 1580, Francis Henriques, wrote: “Akbar knows a little of all trades, and sometimes loves to practise them before his people, as a carpenter, or as a blacksmith, or as an armourer.”
Nothing was beyond Akbar. So much so that he is one of the “great” figures in history along with Alexander, Constantine, Darius and Iyer (the last was a film with Mammootty playing a Malayali Nostradamus. It has a confusing, creepy sex scene).
Imperious: Hrithik Roshan (left) in Jodhaa Akbar was only partially successful—like most fictive Akbars.
But most of all history found Akbar worthy of being portrayed by Hrithik Roshan.
Yet what is it about Akbar that makes him so inaccessible to fiction? Prithviraj Kapoor’s portrayal of Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam is so over the top it floats miles above the rest of the film, visible from the earth only as a tiny dot of ham. Roshan’s Akbar is impressive onscreen, but the film was forgotten by the time you’d made it to the multiplex parking lot.
Perhaps fiction can only handle so much overwhelming fact.
Yet I was tremendously excited to read Ruler of the World, the third and latest instalment in Alex Rutherford’s Empire of the Moghul period fiction quintet. So far the series has produced two pulsating books that covered a wide, turbulent swathe of Mughal history. The first, on Babur, was markedly better than the second that comprised Humayun’s opium-laced reign. Yet the authors— there are two—had found a clever way of using ornamentation, visceral violence and strong central personalities to gloss over plot inadequacies. The end products were both very readable. And now that they had Akbar to deal with in Book 3, I figured, things could only get better.
The most infuriating thing about Ruler of the World is the dialogue. In order to somehow cover periods of history of great length and depth, the book frequently jumps years at a time. Unfortunately the authors often use dialogue to help us catch up. What you have is the “Hello? Speaking. Yes? What! You are telling me that my boss has found out about my affair with his daughter and now he has decided to fire me and replace me with my arch-nemesis!!!” kind of dialogue that plagues bad sitcoms. Sample this by Akbar: “The crashing waves and seemingly limitless power of the ocean are a salutary reminder to me not to become vainglorious and over-confident. Although I have led great armies, won great victories, filled my treasuries and come to reign over vast millions—many more than any other ruler—I am still just a man, insignificant and transitory in the face of eternal nature.”
Empire of the Moghul—Ruler of the World: Hachette/Headline,401 pages, Rs495.
Mind you, this is not Akbar musing to himself. No. He actually says this to one of his generals. It is as if there was a tremendous shortage of full-stops in the Mughal empire at the time.
It soon becomes clear that the authors have decided to once again use violence and set-piece battles to plug holes. Brains pop out, eyes get slashed open and there is an awful lot of stabbing between the ribs. An awful lot.
But the book becomes an ordeal when, in the second half, it shifts focus to Salim, the future Jehangir. Salim’s general approach to life is to whine and wallow in self-pity. Akbar—who now sounds like a cantankerous old man who plays games with his family—is pushed to the background. The rest of the story is told from Salim’s perspective.
Ruler of the World is perhaps the most violent of the three books so far. But that is also because violence is used here liberally to fill in a listless storyline.
There are opportunities for gripping storytelling—Akbar’s dyslexia, and the possibility that he was inspired by Queen Elizabeth and Henry VIII in England to create his own syncretic Din-i-Ilahi?religion. But?both?are?dealt with with the most cursory of touches.
Still, Rutherford has readers hooked on an addictive but waning drug. Like the films of Roland Emmerich, one has no option but to subject oneself to the ordeal.
Meanwhile Akbar looms just beyond reach and comprehension. As ever.
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